Remember a couple of weeks ago, when I discussed Bloody Good Time having some interesting ideas but ultimately being a bit rough around the edges? Then I pined for more interesting competitive multiplayer design in general? I guess I didn't have to wait long. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is the cure to exactly what was ailing me.
I'd heard about the multiplayer in AC:B and while I wanted to remain optimistic, there wasn't a exactly heap of evidence for a positive outlook. Ubisoft Montréal hit their multiplayer high water mark (design-wise, anyway) with Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. The two vs. two asymmetric multiplayer was brilliant, featuring a pair of stealthy, gadget-carrying spies facing off against well-armed mercenaries. The spies were tasked with theft/sabotage and the mercenaries had to thwart them. While the spy gameplay build upon the single player campaign's mechanics, the mercenaries were a completely unique playstyle. In fact, Ubi Montréal went so far as to implement first-person controls just for the mercenaries, while the spies remained in third person.
It was a great design and created some truly fantastic moments. It was expanded upon a bit in the next Splinter Cell game, Chaos Theory, but the introduction of a strict deathmatch mode was as much as drawback as the other additions were improvements. Some do prefer Chaos Theory, and that's fair. But either way, it's no far cry (alright, pun intended) from its predecessor. And from here, Ubi Montréal cooled off on pushing the multiplayer design envelope any further. Rainbow Six: Vegas and its sequel were certainly very polished and tight, but largely a refinement on a relatively well-known formula. The multiplayer in Splinter Cell: Double Agent was largely acknowledged as inferior to prior entries. Splinter Cell: Conviction had a compelling co-op mode, but its multiplayer was also quite lackluster. I don't even remember if the first Far Cry had multiplayer and while the second did, it was absolutely forgettable.
It's a bit surprising, but very pleasantly so, that Ubi Montréal has seemingly created a multiplayer game as interesting as Pandora Tomorrow with Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. In a lot of ways, AC:B is similar to The Ship/Bloody Good Time- each player is assigned one other player as a target and must hunt them down. Where it differs significantly is the environments are filled with NPCs, all of which are identical to the dozen or so multiplayer characters available. The challenge is to determine which of these characters is actually your human target and take them out. It's actually quite similar to Chris Hecker's Spy Party in this respect. A good player in AC: B will hide amongst identical NPCs, doing their best to impersonate an AI, waiting for their moment to strike. Penalties are doled out for killing NPCs, so guessing at your target is a risky proposition at best. And more points are awarded for a stealth kill than one delivered after a large, obvious foot chase.
If you do manage to spot your pursuer before they can get their knife into you, a chase sequence begins. Similar in form the chases in AC's single player gameplay, if you can evade and hide from your pursuer for long enough, their contract on you is nullified. And the leading players in the match get multiple contracts on them, only magnifying the tension and their paranoia.
The only bit that's disappointing is an XP/level system that grants new abilities, as is all the rage these days. I don't like this becoming a mandatory multiplayer feature, and I think the gameplay would be more interesting if players always had the same abilities. But it's a relatively minor quibble and it's entirely possible I'm wrong about its long term value.
Ultimately, the gameplay is about lying to other players with your behaviour. So far, it's fantastic. Unlike Bloody Good Time, where being sure of your target meant comparing the crosshair's name label with the one on your HUD, in AC: B only obvious behavioural tells will distinguish player from AI. This and the focus on melee kills makes all the difference. It's the gameplay I desperately wanted Bloody Good Time to be. There are still plenty of interesting ideas in BGT that aren't present here, of course. But the core loop I wanted it to have has been made manifest in AC: B.
I've only put in an hour or so thus far, but I'm really enjoy it. Little can get me to brave the cesspool of Xbox Live these days, but AC: B certainly has. And fortunately, voice chat is only allowed during the brief lobby loading session. A great mercy that, as even in just that small window, earlier tonight I heard what sounded like a dog chewing on someone's mic, interspersed with (doubtlessly) racist/sexist/homophobic slurs.
It's entirely possible the luster will wear off, but thus far, this is exactly the kind of multiplayer experience I was looking for. It rewards patience, subtlety and planning, not twitch reflexes. Deceiving pursuers into killing an identical NPC a few steps away makes you feel damn clever. The risk/reward of taking even the smallest of actions makes the game feel quite tense. I'm really looking forward to putting some more hours into this.
And if you're not a frothing angry Internetman, I'd be more than happy to play with you. I'm Nelsormensch, and I look forward to stabbing you in the back.